Theatre professors teach acting, directing courses online

Marquette+students+performed+%22Peter+and+the+Starcatcher%22+in+September.+Theatre+professors+are+now+adjusting+to+teach+acting+in+an+online+format.+Marquette+Wire+Stock+Photo.+

Photo by Jordan Johnson

Marquette students performed "Peter and the Starcatcher" in September. Theatre professors are now adjusting to teach acting in an online format. Marquette Wire Stock Photo.

While remote learning has thrown a wrench in lesson plans across the university, programs that rely heavily on in-person learning activities or performances have drastically shifted functions. Professors in the Marquette Theatre Arts department have found innovative ways for students to continue acting and directing online. 

For Debra Krajec, professor of Theatre Arts at Marquette University, adjusting her Acting for Non-Theatre Majors course for online participation was a huge switch, especially because she had planned for the second part of semester to be the most important part of her course. 

Krajec shifted her original plan of having her students perform two partner scenes from published plays to having the students do monologues. In this process, Krajec said she made sure to include clear guidelines and offer plenty of help.

“I did coaching online outside of class, one on one, for those that wanted to get extra help,” Krajec said in an email. “And I offered the assistance of my seven advanced directing students to help coach students, if they wanted to work with someone other than me.”

By including students from her Advanced Play Directing course, Krajec said she hopes to replicate some of the directing experience they are losing, as they are now unable to direct their one-act plays this semester. 

Krajec offered multiple options for performing these monologues, noting some of the students got quite creative.

“Learning how to perform for the camera has many similarities but in our situation also many limitations because of the fact that they are not in the same locations and cannot touch or look straight at each other or do much movement,” Krajac said in an email. She said the students are adapting very well to all of the curricular changes.

Presently, Krajec is having her students work on two- and three-person scenes from published plays. She said she is experiencing some challenges using Microsoft Teams, as it is difficult to get the two performers on the screen at the same time to record. However, Krajec is confident that the issue will get resolved and maintains a positive sentiment about the entire situation.

“I am very lucky to have a really great class of students, who I believe are appreciative of what I am doing to make the class work, and that I am checking in with them regularly and communicating through posts, texts and video chat,” Krajec said in an email. “It has taken me much longer to prepare and work on this class in this online format than in person, but it has also forced me to think about teaching acting in a new way, and it’s fun.”

Jamie Cheatham, professor of Theatre Arts, is teaching both an Unarmed Combat course and Acting II. The students’ opportunity to perform choreography that would have allowed them to be certified by the Society of American Fight Directors was canceled. However, Cheatham said Unarmed Combat has surprisingly been the easier of the two to adapt, as the students already learned all the basic principles and techniques. Cheatham said he has been creating video tutorials for the students from his home.

“The challenge for me was to demonstrate techniques by myself without a partner,” Cheatham said in an email. “I ended up fighting with chairs, poles and other human substitutes.”

For the acting class, Cheatham said he has been working to adapt a unit inspired by the late Sanford Meisner, an actor who developed the Meisner technique as a way to help actors understand how to truly be “in the moment.” He said he has been using Teams meetings to keep up with his students and encourages them to still practice these exercises.

“What I’ve done is to share, theoretically at least, where these exercises would build to, as they begin to approach more traditional scene work,” Cheatham said in an email. “I’ve taken them a bit closer to this end on Teams meetings, but again, the medium is limiting, especially when dealing with something like blocking, which is actor movement on stage.”

Cheatham has been working to create essays that summarize the work being done along with the work that would have been done in person. Overall, Cheatham said students have been doing more solo work as opposed to the partner work that was originally intended for the semester. 

Maureen Kilmurry, who is teaching Acting Shakespeare this semester, has found that online learning makes it much easier for students to disengage, as they can simply turn their cameras off. As she would in a live class, Kilmurry said she tries to do a warm-up when she notices this happening, but that technology creates an extra barrier.

Barriers between actors and other actors, actors and the audience of other students, and students and teachers have been the major challenge to overcome for all performance-based courses. Kilmurry said the live aspect of theater is what makes it so special.

“We had to approach it as ‘how we can convey as much as we can through the limitations we have?'” Kulmurry said in an email. 

To adapt the course for remote learning, Kilmurry was able to keep many of the written assignments the same, offering students options to do assignments verbally and individually with her if they so choose. Some of these assignments include having the students rewriting Shakespearean texts in their own words, analyzing character goals in a particular scene and analyzing rhythm in a scene.

For the scene work, Kilmurry and her students worked on creating a strategy for virtual blocking. This includes positioning computer cameras so it looks as though two students are facing each other, moving about to incorporate entrances and exits and even adapting stage fighting to work remotely, having characters act out a slap in a scene by having one actor swipe their hand towards the camera while their partner reacts as if they have been slapped.

Kilmurry, like Krajec and Cheatham, said the online portion of the semester has been very challenging. However, the professors have found ways to adapt, as Krajec said the shift has forced her to think about acting in new way which she has found to be fun. 

This story was written by Grace Dawson. She can be reached at grace.dawson@marquette.edu.